20 July 2023

Two Egyptian human rights campaigners released from prison following pardons

20 July 2023

Egypt released two human rights defenders on Thursday their lawyers said, concluding two cases that have drawn significant international criticism and attention.

The releases of Patrick George Zaki, an activist and postgraduate student in Italy, and Mohamed el-Baker, a human rights lawyer, came a day after they were pardoned by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi along with four other people. Confirmation of the pardons was published in Egypt’s Official Gazette.

The release of Mr Zaki, whose case was championed by Italy’s government, was announced by Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who posted a picture of the student on Facebook on Thursday afternoon.

His sister, Marise Zaki, also confirmed his release, posting a photo on Facebook of him speaking to journalists after his release.

“Patrick is on the Asphalt,” she wrote on Facebook, using a phrase that activists often use when detainees walk free.

The Egyptian government has relentlessly silenced dissidents and clamped down on independent organisations for years with arrests, detentions, prison sentences and other restrictions.

But it has pardoned dozens of detainees in recent months after its human rights record came under international scrutiny when it hosted the UN climate change summit in November.

“We’re very happy. Finally, this calamity came to an end,” Ms Zaki told The Associated Press.

Mr Zaki, who is Christian, was arrested in February 2020, shortly after landing in Cairo on a trip home from Italy where he was studying at the University of Bologna, over an opinion article he wrote in 2019.

He was released in December 2021 after spending 22 months in pretrial detention, but had to remain in Egypt and was not allowed to travel abroad, pending trial.

On Tuesday, Mr Zaki had been sentenced to three years in prison because of the 2019 article.

Mr Zaki said he hopes to arrive in Italy “in the next two days”, the Italian news agency ANSA said. In an ANSA video — aired on Italy’s SkyTG24 — Mr Zaki was seen hugging his sister and other family members in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura.

In a recorded speech late on Wednesday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Mr Zaki would return to Italy on Thursday, and thanked the efforts made by both Italian and Egyptian diplomats. The Italian government had repeatedly called for Mr Zaki’s release since his arrest.

However, it remained unclear whether Mr Zaki would be able to travel. Egyptian authorities often retain travel bans on former detainees after their release.

Late on Thursday, Ms Meloni said she held another phone conversation with President el-Sissi but did not provide any update on when or whether Mr Zaki would be arriving in Italy.

Following his release, the young activist visited the Italian embassy in Cairo and spoke to Italy’s ambassador, Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani told journalists in Brussels.

Mr Zaki’s case has reverberated across Italy, with his sentencing reminding many of the tragic fate of Italian student Giulio Regeni who was abducted and killed in Cairo in 2016.

After obtaining his master’s degree in gender and women’s studies earlier this month, Mr Zaki plans to embark on a doctorate, his father, George Zaki, has said. He also plans to get married later this year, his father added.

Later Thursday, Mr Bahgat said on Twitter that Mr el-Baker had also been released. The news was confirmed by his lawyer, Ahmed Ragheb.

Mr el-Baker was arrested in September 2019 while attending prosecutors’ questioning of another prominent activist, Alaa Abdel-Fattah.

He was accused of disseminating false news, misuse of social media and joining a terrorist group and was sentenced to four years in prison late in 2021.

Mr Abdel-Fattah, one of the most prominent activists in the country, was sentenced to five years in prison on the same charges.

When he returned to his Cairo home, Mr el-Baker’s family celebrated his birthday.

“Baker’s 43rd birthday is at home. Thanks God,” his wife, Neama Hisham, wrote in a Facebook post.

Luise Amtsberg, German commissioner for human rights and humanitarian assistance, welcomed the release of Mr Zaki and Mr el-Baker as a “step in the right direction.”

Writing on Twitter, Ms Amtsberg urged Egypt’s government to “continue resolutely along this path” of releasing detained rights defenders.

The European Union also praised the releases, describing them as “a positive development for EU-Egypt relations”.

Lawyers representing the four other less well-known detainees said they also were released.

Rights groups estimate that thousands of political prisoners remain in custody in Egypt, many without trials.

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